Press Release

Heckler turned street preacher found not guilty after police arrest for ‘hate speech’

2 November 2022         Issued by: Christian Concern

A Christian preacher who was arrested for criticising Muhammad and Buddha has been found not guilty following a court hearing.

Shaun O’Sullivan, 32, who has been supported by the Christian Legal Centre, was arrested in Swindon Town Centre on 11 March 2020, for alleged ‘hate speech’ and causing harassment, alarm and distress.

Last month, however, at Swindon Magistrates Court, three magistrates swiftly ruled that he was not guilty of the public order offence and dismissed the charges against him.

The case follows a string of high-profile incidents in the media where members of the public and teachers have been vilified, and even forced into hiding, for critiquing Muhammad.

This week has also seen an end to the Government’s work on establishing a formal definition of ‘Islamophobia.’ Communities Secretary, Michael Gove, has said creating the definition would create ‘dangers’ as the term prevents legitimate criticisms of a religious ideology. If such a definition were adopted then Mr O’Sullivan’s public statements of fact could have been seen as criminal.

Mr O’Sullivan, a born-again Christian who has overcome drug addiction and was a former criminal, had been preaching from the Bible about Jesus and forgiveness for over an hour without complaint, which he did regularly in Swindon.

A member of the public suggested to him that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and in response Mr O’Sullivan began addressing the issue of Islam and compared Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha.

He made clear that Jesus was the Way the Truth and the Life, and therefore other religious prophets were not the means of salvation. Mr O’Sullivan relayed evidence from the Islamic Hadith, which is seen as authoritative by Muslims, that Muhammad was married to a six-year-old and had sex with her when she was nine-years old.

Mr O’Sullivan was referring to Muhammad’s marriage to Ayesha, commonly regarded as his favourite wife.

The Hadith, narrated by Ayesha herself, and therefore regarded as especially trustworthy by Muslims, states:

“Narrated ‘Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six-years-old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old”.[1]

Furthermore, in comparison to Jesus, Mr O’Sullivan said that whereas Jesus famously washed his disciples’ feet as an act of humility and servanthood, whereas Muhammad was said to have had semen washed out of his clothes following sexual activity.

Again, despite the controversy, Mr O’Sullivan was referring to another recognised Hadith, which says:

Narrated ‘Aishah: I used to wash the traces of Janaba (semen) from the clothes of the Prophet and he used to go for Salat (prayers) while traces of water were still on it (water spots were still visible).”[2]

Based on these recognised Islamic authorities, Mr O’Sullivan suggested that Muhammad would today be referred to as a paedophile.

Comparing Muhammad to Jesus in this regard, Mr O’Sullivan made the point that Jesus loved children and treated women with respect.

An eyewitness said that a woman then said to Mr O’Sullivan: ‘I am a Muslim, I am offended by him because he is saying racist comments. I will call the police.’

In court the witness commented that he was not personally offended but was concerned that someone else would be.

A police officer arrived and said there had been a complaint that Mr O’Sullivan had been making ‘racist’ comments. Mr O’Sullivan denied this and said that Islam is not a race.

The police officer agreed that he could continue preaching, but then minutes later returned and arrested Mr O’Sullivan under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 for allegedly causing religious and racially motivated ‘harassment, alarm and distress.’

When questioned by police, Mr O’Sullivan said that his aim was to preach the truth and if members of the public were upset it was not necessarily his fault. He said it was not his intention to upset anyone. His principal concern was to lead people to Christ by preaching against other religious ideologies.

He was asked whether he had been comparing Jesus and Muhammad in order to devalue Muhammad and he said: ‘No, I was just stating facts.’

Legal case

During legal proceedings, expert evidence was provided to the court by international theologian on Christianity and Islam, Dr Martin Parsons. Concluding his evidence, Dr Parsons said:

“In relation to the statements that the defendant has either admitted to have made or is alleged to have made about Islam and Muhammad. Whilst there are some details that may be inaccurate, the general tenor of the defendant’s comments is at least broadly in line with what is set out in the Islamic Scriptures (Qur’an and Hadith).”

‘I wanted to tell the truth’

Mr O’Sullivan, who has said that before becoming a Christian and street preacher he would heckle and persecute street preachers, said: “I am relieved that the magistrates have seen sense and found me not guilty. It was never my intention to offend or upset people. My intention was to tell the truth based on the evidence in the Bible and Islamic scripture, and when you do that in public there is always someone who will be offended. Offending someone is not and never should be seen as a crime.

“Based on the evidence I have studied from other religions; Jesus is the way the truth and the life. The evidence from other religions reveals a set of false prophets and examples, such as Muhammad, that we clearly should not aspire to or follow.

“I am passionate about telling people about the hope and example of Jesus Christ, and I want them to know the truth about the ideologies they follow, which is often kept from them.

“We must be free to critique other religions and to debate in public without being accused of being racist and ending up in a prison cell and in court.”

In a classic ruling on street preaching and free speech in 1997, Judge Sedley famously ruled in the Redmond-Bate case in the street preacher’s favour that:

‘Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

[1] Sahih Al-Bukhari (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 1997) Hadith 5134.

[2] Sahih Bukhari Hadith 229 who also narrates further similar Hadith 230,231, 232 as does Sahih Muslim Hadith 570, 571, 572.

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